Editor’s note: With natural gas to Homer getting closer every day, questions abound. In this three-part series, the Homer News looks at some of the challenges in converting to natural gas — including how the conversion hurts some businesses.
As trees come down and survey stakes go up, property and business owners wonder how they will be affected by a project to bring natural gas from Anchor Point to Homer and Kachemak City.
On Monday, Mark Vial and Connie Cavasos discovered survey stakes against a fence separating the street from their home on Fairview Avenue, the route the natural gas trunk line will take through town. Looking down Fairview, the stakes form a straight line crossing Vial’s paved parking pad and through a pine tree.
Cavasos said she and Vial began asking about impacts to their property as soon as Enstar Natural Gas began making plans to construct the gas line. If the parking pad were removed, would it be replaced and repaved? Could the pine tree be saved? Could the couple harvest firewood from trees being removed? Could they remove the fence so it could be reused?
As of Tuesday, they were still waiting for answers.
“It would be nice if somebody would just talk to us about where we’re going to park and how we’re going to get into our house,” said Cavasos, who also has concerns about neighbors out of the country and unaware of the natural gas project. Then there’s the question of the neighborhood mailboxes.
“I asked our mail carrier if (the mailbox) was going to be taken down and he said he didn’t have a clue,” said Cavasos.
That’s a question for which Homer Postmaster Carolyn Sapp also has no answer.
“(Construction companies) usually send notices letting us know what they’re planning on doing, but we haven’t heard anything,” said Sapp.
Where to find answers for questions related to the project was addressed at the Homer City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday.
“If I’m a property owner and I’m in love with an alder hedge or there’s a tree I like, who should I expect is the appropriate contact or process I should get involved in?” said council member Beau Burgess.
Homer Public Works Director Carey Meyer offered his office as a point of contact.
“Encourage them to drop by Public Works,” said Meyer. “We’ll keep an address file for each property and keep the decisions that we make as we act as referee within the right of way to keep property owners’ interests in the mix. Call Public Works and … and we’ll make sure (concerns) get communicated to the contractor.”
Carey said Enstar has provided the city with a map of “their best-educated guess” of where in the pipeline will be placed within the right of way.
“I would take that with a little grain of salt based on our initial look at the alignments,” said Carey. “We have found the more you study these and look at where ditches are, where culverts are, where driveways are, where underground utilities are, I would expect it to change from that map, but that’s the first place to go.”
City Manager Walt Wrede agreed.
“As Carey said, that’s (Enstar’s) first take on where they’d like to put the lines, but I think there will be a lot of changes once they get in there and are confronted with the reality of what’s on the street,” said Wrede. “
John Sims, Enstar’s manager of corporate communications and customer service, has urged property owners with concerns to contact Enstar.
“That’s the only thing we ask. Get to us ahead of time so if there’s a possible way to avoid someone’s favorite plant or tree or something like that, we’ll try to the best we can,” Sims told the Homer News.
Property owners wanting to know more about the right of way on specific properties can view plat maps available through the state recorder’s office or the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The maps can be viewed online. Printed copies also can be obtained.
“I’ve had some people come in for plat maps and I will print them off at no cost,” said Tammaron Baxter at the borough’s Pioneer Avenue office. Baxter also will give step-by-step instructions for navigating the borough’s online parcel viewer.
With trees and brush already being cleared along the Sterling Highway portion of the trunk line’s route, signs are in place cautioning drivers about the work in progress and noting the presence of flaggers.
“We’ve been coordinating with Enstar and are basically looking for fairly minimal traffic disruptions as a result of their effort and our coordination with them,” said Rick Feller with the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ construction and operations office in Anchorage.
Little disruption to traffic flow on state-owned streets also is anticipated within the city. As project activity increases, Donika Simpson, the DOT&PF right-of-way agent for the Kenai Peninsula, said she will receive at the beginning of each week an email from Enstar of construction anticipated for the week, traffic controls that will be used and what impacts are anticipated. That information will be forwarded to the department’s 511 website for notifying motorists.
Simpson anticipates closures to be single-lane only, for a maximum of 15 minutes or a line of five cars.
What is less clear is the impact a new source of energy, one promising to be more economical, will have on existing energy providers.
“HEA supports the gas extension in the Homer area as it should help our members reduce their cost of energy and be an overall benefit to the community’s economy,” said Joe Gallagher, public relations coordinator for member-owned Homer Electric Association. “We expect minimal impact on our retail sales as HEA does not have many members relying primarily on electricity to meet their space heating needs.”
Smokey Norton in Petro Marine’s marketing office in Anchorage is “quite certain that natural gas, if history has anything to do with it, will supplement the historical heating fuel that we sell down there (in Homer). That’s just the way it works.”
Petro Marine has 15 Homer employees, a service station in Homer and Anchor Point and a marina for selling marine fuel, in addition to selling heating fuel. In the company’s 51 years of business in Alaska, it has experienced similar situations in other areas of the state.
“In communities that we service in Southeast, heating fuel has been supplemented with hydro power,” said Norton. “Now the federal government has mandated bio fuels in a number of locations in order to try to move away from diesel fuel. ... Switching from a more expensive fuel to a less expensive fuel, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen it happen.”
How many of Petro Marine’s customers will switch to natural gas is anybody’s guess.
“If it can help lower people’s expenses for heating homes, it’ll be a good thing,” said Norton. “You jump into it and don’t know about other expenses and other issues that come along with it. I’m sure for some people, it will be a very, very good deal and they’ll jump right on it. For other people, it’s not going to be as attractive.”
Home Run Oil Company has been in the business of selling heating oil since 2000. It has nine full-time employees, customers as far north as Clam Gulch and sells gas and diesel at its service station on East End Road.
“We can’t predict what people are going to do or not do, which is part of what makes it so hard to determine what we should do or not do. We really have no idea,” said owner Shelly Erickson. “It’s this daunting thing hanging over our head.”
Erickson has spoken with heating oil companies that have faced similar uncertainties.
“They’ve lost employees, lost jobs, their delivery routes have completely changed, and they’re able to spread their losses across the company,” she said. “They have that kind of opportunity with larger operations that have multiple facilities. There are a lot more options open to them than someone like me.”
Trying to stay positive and look for opportunities while waiting to see what impact natural gas will have on her business is challenging.
“Where are the new niches? What do we need to be doing?” said Erickson. “I’m looking out there and saying I don’t know where the bright future is in Homer.”
For those making the switch from heating oil to natural gas, there’s the question of what to do with no-longer-needed fuel tanks. Filling that niche is something Erickson isn’t pursuing.
“We’re not buying them back” said Erickson. “We’ve already had people asking us.”
The tanks can be taken to the Homer Baling-Landfill Facility, however.
“You need to have one end cut out of the tank so it can be visually inspected,” said Jim Norcross, facilities superintendent. “Once you get it open, drain it, make sure there are no liquids in the tank and no solids.”
There is no fee for discarding smaller tanks, like the 300- and 500-gallon variety.
“But if you’re talking 10,000 gallons, that’s something different,” said Norcross.
Does Norcross anticipate receiving a large number of no-longer-needed fuel tanks?
“Homer itself is really on board with natural gas, but I don’t know about the residents of the community,” he said. “It’s going to be very interesting.”
• Carey Meyer, city of Homer Public Works director, 235-3170
• Enstar’s Homer office: 435-0635, enstarnaturalgas.com
• Homer Recorder’s Office: 235-8136, www.recorder.alaska.gov
• Kenai Peninsula Borough: 235-8840, www.borough.kenai.ak.us
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.